Thursday, December 12, 2019

Movie Review: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems ***** / *****
Directed by: Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie.   
Written by: Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner), Julia Fox (Julia), Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett), Idina Menzel (Dinah), Jonathan Aranbayev (Eddie), Jacob Igielski (Beni), Noa Fisher (Marcel), Paloma Elsesser (Kat), LaKeith Stanfield (Demany), Eric Bogosian (Arno), Keith Williams Richards (Phil), Tommy Kominik (Nico), Louis Anthony Arias (Buddy), Judd Hirsch (Gooey), Benjy Kleiner (Aaron), Josh Ostrovsky (Noah), Sahar Bibiyan (Ida), Lana Levitin (Ruth), The Weeknd (The Weeknd), Pom Klementieff (Lexus), Jake Ryan (Actor). 
Watching Uncut Gems is a deliberately anxiety inducing experience. Watching the film, I was even more convinced than I was by the Safdie brothers last film, the mesmerizing and brilliant Good Time, that the filmmakers were trying to give me a heart attack. The film is propulsive, kinetic, filmmaking from beginning to end – the type of film that doesn’t slow down for second, just goes from one brilliant, tense set piece to another without coming up for air. I assume the film will turn a lot of people off – it is loud and brash and bold, and I don’t think there is one likable character in the entire film (maybe NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing himself). It is a dazzling high wire act that runs over two hours and never lets you breath.
If I was surprised by how great Robert Pattinson was in Good Time (seriously, he should have won an Oscar for that performance) I am even more surprised that Adam Sandler so brilliantly carries Uncut Gems. This isn’t because Sandler hasn’t been great in other movies – as much as he normally just coasts on his charm, his silly voices, etc. – when Sandler digs in to a performance – he can be great. Uncut Gems belongs on a list with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love in many ways for Sandler – as both movies essentially have Sandler play extreme versions of his normal screen persona – but just take it to extremes. Sandler often plays self-absorbed psychopaths – but they are wrapped up in that charm, disguised by those voices, so you don’t quite understand what narcissistic monsters he’s really playing (does Sandler know? I have no idea). Punch-Drunk Love had Sandler embrace the anti-social side of his characters – the wounded child, prone to violent outbursts because he is so beat down by life. Uncut Gems goes the other way – and has Sandler full embrace his brash, obnoxious, over-the-top side. It’s one of those performances you see, and could never imagine anyone else playing it.
Sandler is Howard Ratner – a diamond dealer in New York, with a store full of jewels – which should mean money – but that disguises just how desperate he is. He owes money all over town – various bookies, gangsters, pawn brokers, etc. are constantly wondering where their money is – and Howard always has an answer for them, although its never one they want to hear. Howard is constantly on the move – constantly going from one place to the next in an attempt to get money, make deals, place bets, etc. Howard is the type of guy who always has 10 scams on the go. But now his whole world is closing in around him. His wife (Idina Menzel) is going to leave him, his girlfriend (Julia Fox) may not be as loyal as she seems – and people are no longer buying his excuses, willing to lend him anything more.
He has what he considers a fool proof plan though. He has imported an Ethiopian Black Opal in, and is convinced he will be able to auction it off for over a $1 million – making a huge profit for himself. He shows the opal to Kevin Garnett – brought in by his friend (LaKeith Stanfield) – and Garnett becomes obsessed with the stone. He convinces Howard to lend him the stone – he’s in the playoffs against the 76ers – and needs the luck (this is 2012, perhaps for no other reason than because it allows the Safdies to use Garnett, now retired). Garnett even gives Howard his NBA championship ring as collateral (which Howard, of course, immediately pawns to place more bets).
The Safdies never lets Howard slow down – have a moment of peace. Even things like Passover dinner with his family is fraught with tension – even danger, or attending his daughters school play ends with Howard naked in the trunk of his car, etc. Howard’s world is constantly turned up to 11. And the movie suggests that the way he wants it to be. Howard doesn’t seem desperate to get out from under his debts – to get everyone off his back. He’s enjoying every minute of the drama, of the pure adrenaline rush of his existence. It’s the end of the world as he knows it, and he feels fine.
Uncut Gems is a masterpiece of filmmaking by the Safdies – who find the perfect style to capture Howard’s non-stop sprint to the bottom. It confirms the Safdies status as the most energetic filmmakers around – giving you a propulsive, anxiety inducting trip to hell and back, smiling all the time. One of the very best films of the year.

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